“Dear Annie, How do I get my crush to notice me?” the 13-year-old asked.
How sweet is that?
When I first started answering teen questions, this is what I mostly got. I began to think of myself as a Cyberspace Miss Lonelyhearts and I was always happy to help the kids with their middle school romances.
But now, 15 years and 15,000 emails later, something’s changed in Teen World. Sure I still get questions about crushes and breakups, but more often the questions reflect something darker. I’m not talking about teen drug use, depression, or eating disorders (though I do get those). I’m talking about cruel, socially aggressive behavior, playing out online and off. It’s intense stuff. And while it may start with two people, within minutes the hostility fans out, causing so much collateral damage to individuals, families, and entire school communities.
Even after all these years of doing my best to help teens make more ethical choices, I’m often (still) surprised by how disconnected many of them seem to be from their natural feelings of empathy.
I know we’re all good parents. And our kids are all good kids. But being good requires doing good.
When most people hear the phrase “doing good,” they may think “charity.” Don’t get me wrong! Community service and donations to non-profits provide golden opportunities for kids to learn that helping others is a part of being alive. But the kind of “doing good” I’m referring to requires action on a very personal, day-to-day level. For our kids to “do good” they need to treat others with respect and stand up for those who are being disrespected.
Standing up and speaking out are no easy tasks in Teen World. It takes social courage. And because social courage is not a naturally occurring substance, we adults need to teach it to our kids. In my upcoming book, Teaching Kids to Be Good People, I put it this way:
It takes an extra boost of social courage to go out of your comfort zone and show support for someone who is being targeted by others. Maybe we don’t do it as often as we should because we’re wired to protect our own self-interests. When kids ask me about standing up for someone who is being bullied, I tell them they shouldn’t put themselves directly in harm’s way, however, there are many ways to show a person, “Others are giving you a hard time. But not me. I’m not like that.”
It's a new school year and a great time to reinforce the importance of a moral compass. I suggest you talk with your sons and daughters about the concept of a pecking order, in the animal kingdom as well as in human society. Tell them that most of the time, when we’re not on the bottom, we don’t give much thought to those who are. Talk about who is “on the bottom” in your child’s class. (Even kids as young as second or third grade have a keen awareness of social strata.) Ask: How do other people treat that child? How do you treat him/her? What might happen if you stood up for the underdog? Challenge your child to be a hero and shake up the social strata by standing up for someone who needs a friend. Follow up and find out what happened when s/he did.
Kids don’t learn to be good people by osmosis (even though parental role modeling is a power positive influence). They must be taught. Obviously, not all teachers are parents, but all parents are teachers and we’ve got to actively teach our children what it means to be good.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, POPSUGAR.